An independent commission should review our National Defense Strategy

Congress needs help conducting oversight of the Pentagon, particularly when there is one-party control of the White House and Capitol Hill. No one likes to be graded, but that is the tradition as it relates to major new defense reviews or strategies. Since 1997, Congress has approved four independent commissions to stress-test Pentagon leaders’ work. The efforts of the next defense strategy commission cannot begin soon enough.

Historically, both political parties have shared the belief in the importance of an independent review of the Pentagon’s defense strategy. Former Senator Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsAn independent commission should review our National Defense Strategy Overnight Hillicon Valley — Scrutiny over Instagram's impact on teens Former national security officials warn antitrust bills could help China in tech race MORE (R-Ind.), who co-sponsored the legislation to mandate regular Pentagon strategy reviews, endorsed the original independent panel, saying that the purpose of the report was “not based on distrust or suspicion of the Pentagon, but on the recognition that we need bold and innovative thinking from a variety of sources in this time of rapid change.”

In December 1997, the first National Defense Panel released a 94-page report entitled “Transforming Defense: National Security in the 21st Century.” The report challenged some of the core principles underpinning defense strategy at the time, fulfilling its mandate and contributing to a larger debate on the issues. 

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In the panel’s cover letter to Congress, Chairman Phillip A. Odeen captured the true aim of the work: “We have not attempted to provide all the answers. Rather, our intention is to stimulate a wider debate on our defense priorities.” 

After the release of the panel report on the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review in 1997, President Clinton’s Secretary of Defense William Cohen expressed his strong backing for the panel’s findings. Senator Coats argued that the independent assessment had served two vital functions: (1) as a hedge against the status quo and (2) an “independent validation of innovative recommendations proposed” by the Pentagon’s strategy.  

Unlike other congressional blue ribbon commissions, Congress has modified the purpose and organization of the commission to reflect the most urgent and important issues facing our national defense. The most recent iteration rightly focused its work on the National Defense Strategy (NDS) giving emphasis and prominence to the document that ought to drive the attention and resources of the Department of Defense. 

Ensuring a proper check on the strategic assumptions and plans within the Pentagon — the same views that promise to drive the newest National Defense Strategy (NDS) right now — is a step Congress must initiate to better oversee the military’s budgets, policies and plans. 

Thankfully, the Senate defense authorization bill proposes to continue the tradition of standing up an independent commission whose work may begin once the strategy drops. The Senate rightly proposes a special focus by the commission on the: 

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  • force planning construct; 
  • resources needed to match the strategy; 
  • risks to the strategy; 
  • gaps or redundancies in service roles and missions; and
  • review of new operational concepts. 

In keeping with the original intention of the first National Defense Panel, no individual or group should be able to direct major future defense planning decisions absent a separate mechanism to test their analytical assumptions. As in the past, this panel should consist of a range of defense analysts with opposing views. It should require the consensus of the entire group. Its work should begin as soon as possible and be completed on time. 

China already has the world’s largest standing army, navy, coast guard, maritime militia and sub-strategic missile force. The Defense Department’s 2021 China Military Report warns of China’s nuclear stockpile increases, ballistic missile buildup at various ranges, power projection investments, and directly acknowledged China’s ambition to “match or surpass U.S. global influence and power.” China’s military ascendancy reinforces the urgency and importance of designing and executing an effective national defense strategy. 

Congressional authorization for a commission on the National Defense Strategy is an important step toward building support for how America’s military should be organized for today and tomorrow. When the latest independent commission completed its work on the 2018 defense strategy, then-Armed Services Committee Chairman James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeOvernight Defense & National Security — White House raises new alarm over Russia Biden sparks confusion, cleanup on Russia-Ukraine remarks Republicans say Mayorkas failed to deliver report on evacuated Afghans MORE (R-Okla.) called it a “blueprint” to implement the NDS. He used the commission’s report to guide his work running the committee for the following two years. The next independent review should strive to do the same.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow based at the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. She is a former staff member in Congress and a former fellow with the Defense Department.

Roger Zakheim is the Washington director of the Ronald Reagan Institute. He was a congressionally-appointed member of the 2018 National Defense Strategy Commission.